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National policy forum representatives report stimulation, optimism and bonhomie

The National Policy Forum met at Aston University last weekend, 16/7 June 2012. Here some of those present describe the highlights for them. For all of them, it was the last meeting in this term of office (and in most cases, they were still waiting to hear whether they have been re-elected). It has also barely met in this period, and, in spite of all the promise of Refounding Labour and Ed Miliband’s change agenda, has been a frustrating agenda. More contributions will be added.

George McManus
(Yorkshire & Humberside constituency party representative, and NPF member off-and-on for 15 years)

This weekend’s National Policy Forum met in Birmingham with members fully aware that a deep sense of cynicism had left members unimpressed with the NPF’s work over the last 10 years.

The election of Angela Eagle as the new Chair with Jon Cruddas leading the policy review encouraged members to believe that things could only get better.   Out was the stifling stage management of the past, in was a clear sense that our leadership wants to listen to the voice of the members.   This was most evident in Ed Miliband’s casual and engaging, self-facilitated Q & A which set the scene for a weekend of optimism and bonhomie.

The focus for the weekend was the ongoing challenge of Britain’s relationship with Europe and laying out Labour’s alternative economic strategy based on jobs and growth.   Most popular workshops were on Prosperity and Work and Britain in the World.   Social Care, Worker’s Rights and Trident were among members top priorities.

Members also considered an HQ proposal for reforming the way we make policy.  This got a luke warm reception whilst a Trade Union backed alternative won widespread support.   Members and leaders were clear that the previous way of doing things had to be consigned to history if we are to build a manifesto which reflects the members views.

Before I left I spoke to Jon Cruddas who agreed with me that conference also needed to change to reflect the new mood of engagement that we’d seen at the NPF.   If it does and delegates enjoy a truly discussion based conference we may just have reasons to be cheerful.  As I always say there’s only 2 types of people.  Pessimists and Socialists and I for one have no time for Pessimism.

Christine Shawcroft
(National Executive constituency party representative for thirteen years)

The workshops on the policy commission papers had been arranged over Saturday and Sunday. At the Saturday plenary the newly-appointed chair, Angela Eagle, suggested that the Sunday workshops be reorganised into 12 sessions dealing with 2 important issues which had arisen in today’s discussions. This was agreed, which is how we managed to hold a discussion on Trident (not mentioned in the Britain in the World document).

To my surprise, all the participants in the workshop were opposed to Trident. The co-convenor said that we must have a debate in the Party. I said that if we were going to do that, then let’s have an honest debate and stop using value-laden terminology like “deterrent”. We are talking about weapons of mass destruction, and having them hasn’t deterred anything – certainly not the 9/11 or the 7/7 bombers. I said that I eat garlic and I’ve never been attacked by vampires – does this prove that the garlic has kept the vampires away? It was agreed to stop using the term “deterrent”.

The Refounding Labour document looking at PiP suggests that Policy Commission documents could have options for voting at Conference. We’ll see if the NEC put forward Rule Changes to this effect.

Jim Mackechnie
(Scottish constituency party representative, first-time NPF member after many years on Glasgow and Strathclyde councils)

The two main areas of progress at last weekend’s NPF were the promotion of the debate on nuclear weapons and the presentation of the TULO proposals for reforming Partnership in Power. With regard to nuclear weapons, the exclusion  of any mention of Trident, and its replacement, from the discussion document on ‘Britain in the World‘ was regarded by many representatives as astonishing and unacceptable. The omission was raised in all three of the Saturday’s workshops sessions  by those opposed to Trident renewal.

Responses from Shadow Ministers John Spellar and Alison Seabeck were less that satisfactory, as they urged that any debate should be postponed until the production of a comprehensive review on defence policy being worked upon by Jim Murphy and Russell Brown. However representatives’ concern seems to have been taken on board (a welcome procedural development!)  as the topic of ‘Twenty First Century Defence Capabilities‘ was prioiritised for one of the workshops on Sunday.

Russell Brown sat in on this workshop. There was some speculation that he might have been specially called in at the last minute to deal with the focus on Trident that represntatives had clearly wanted.  The workshop quickly zeroed in on the issue of Trident and  NEC member Christine Shawcroft and representatives from Scotland, Wales, London and East Midlands all made clear their opposition to nuclear weapons and to Trident renewal. Arguments in favour of diversification and conversion were advanced to combat the challenge that 20,000 jobs were at stake if there was no Trident replacement. Russell Brown seemed much more sympathetic to the case for nuclear disarmament than his colleagues. He specifically acknowledged  the strength of feeling expressed in the room, and assured us that there would be no attempt to avoid the debate as the policy review progressed.

The debate on how to reform Partnership into Power continued. The Party leadership had tabled a set of proposals that were an improvement in as much as it did acknowledge that Annual Conference should  have different policy choices placed before it, and that there would be an opportunity for Party units to submit amendments to policy documents. However the porocess was still overly complicated (as evidenced by the flow diagram attached to the document) and a  simpler alternative procedure, involving CLPs at a much earlier stage of the process was tabled by TULO. At the plenary session at which the reform of PiP was discussed there was much support for this alternative – from both trade union and constituency party representatives. If the TULO proposals were to be adopted it would represent a major step forward in meanifully engaging CLPs and grassroots members with the policy making procedure, and would give an opportunity for approaches differing from those of the Party leadership to be injected into the process with some prospect of success.

Veronica Killen
(Northern region constituency party representative, first-time NPF member)

What a transformation! I never thought another policy forum gathering would be so stimulating and promising and optimistic! I actually enjoyed it and am glad I went. Congratulations to the new policy team: Iain McNicol, John Cruddas and Angela Eagle! No disrespect to the predecessors, we all have our niches and hopefully, they have found theirs now.

The promising weekend began with the speech by Ed Miliband. He made it clear that ‘Labour get’s it’, Labour is anti-austerity, no workers should be in poverty and all young people should have a route into a career; amongst the points he made. He also praised the work of Labour controlled councils, citing Birmingham who introduced a living wage for council workers (although a living wage should not be used as a downward leveller on future pay offers – my thoughts).

Jon Cruddas and Angela Eagle heard how NPF delegates are fed up with the slow progress and the lack of inclusion and opportunity to discuss with CLP’s ideas for policy direction. The list of demands from the delegates included:

  • Election of NPF members on a full election term basis.
  • For CLP’s to have time to discuss documents and ideas.
  • For all NPF members to be included in the various commission groups – not a handful of ‘second chamber’ election winners.
  • For the commission groups to have at the opening of the policy points, a clear statement of intent which reflects core labour values. This will provide a framework for logical policy detail.
  • A clear audit trail of submissions.
  • For a clear timetable of milestones which make up the path to a manifesto. For members to put amendments in along the way.
  • Where an option is defeated, but receives more than 25% support, it would be presented to conference as an alternative position.
  • For conference to retain a strengthened resolution basis. And lastly,
  • For the process to speed up and catch up.

In essence, almost all of the recommendations and timeframe put forward in the TULO document: ‘Refounding Labour, The Policy Process: A proposal for reform’. No-one spoke against any of these recommendations. It was clear from the NPF members that we are up to the challenge and the work ahead – now let’s get on with it.

It’s easy to be caught up in the euphoria of the weekend, and a few cautionary thoughts come to mind. One is, how all 29 policy making groups can align into the new 3 key areas of policy: the economy, society and politics. How quickly the party machinery can get into gear and action and any backlash from groups within the party who may not agree with the new direction. We don’t want to get into any distractions, getting policy right is crucial, not just for us, but for generations to come.

Other reports worth looking at are those by Socialist Society representative, Emma Burnell of the LabourHousing Group, and London constituency party representative, Alon Or-bach.

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